SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Much of the world has seen the photos of Kaci Hickox peering from a tent outside a New Jersey hospital. But on Tuesday evening, the Maine nurse shared images of herself in a tent she entered willingly, where she treated Ebola patients at the heart of the devastating outbreak in West Africa.
Hickox, who garnered international attention after defying quarantine orders in two states, spoke about the disease at Partners for World Health in South Portland, a nonprofit organization that conducts medical missions and collects medical supplies for distribution in the developing world.
Hickox grabbed headlines in late October when she was forced into quarantine near the airport in Newark, New Jersey, after returning from a tour treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone with Doctors Without Borders. Now, more than two months later, she’s living in Yarmouth and embarking on speaking engagements to raise awareness about Ebola and the world’s response to the deadly virus.
As she insisted throughout the ordeal, Hickox never was infected with Ebola.
On her first day treating patients, in tents with basic cots and generator-powered lights, Hickox recalled asking a woman if anyone in her family had been stricken with Ebola.
“Her response to me was, ‘17 of my family members have died in the last two months,’” Hickox said.
Then there was the 10-year-old girl who arrived at the clinic alone, one of an estimated 3,700 children who have lost at least one parent to Ebola during the outbreak, according to UNICEF. The girl seemed perfectly normal, until she stood up, sapping every ounce of energy the sick child could muster, she said.
“It’s a weakness that I’ve never seen in my life,” Hickox said.
She went on to detail how the virus transmits — from bats to primates to humans — and the precautions she and her fellow health care workers took to prevent infection, including spraying down full-body protective gear with a chlorine solution after leaving patients’ bedsides.
Hickox lamented the slow global response to Ebola, with the World Health Organization declaring the outbreak an international emergency a full eight months after the virus claimed the life of a 2-year-old boy in Guinea now believed to be the first person to contract the disease in the current outbreak. Another month later, President Obama declared the outbreak a national security priority.
“It’s embarrassing to me, and sad,” Hickox said.
She shared a number of sobering statistics throughout the evening, stressing the urgency of stopping Ebola at its source in West Africa: More than 20,000 cases of the virus; 375 deaths among health care workers responding to the outbreak, according to the WHO; the virus’ mortality rate of 25 to 90 percent.
In a question-and-answer session after her presentation, a largely friendly audience turned the conversation to Hickox’s reception in the U.S. after returning from Sierra Leone. The disorganized government response to her arrival at the airport, and the subsequent quarantine order, took her by surprise, she said. Maine Gov. Paul LePage and state public health officials then attempted to quarantine her in her Fort Kent home, though she displayed no symptoms of Ebola, but ultimately failed to secure a court order to force her confinement.
“Politicians have decided they’re invincible, and that’s scary to me,” she said. “Almost as scary as Ebola.”
Leanne Noyes, a Portland nurse in the audience, pressed Hickox to explain why she felt threatened by the lengthy interrogation she underwent at the Newark airport, given the public’s fear about the virus.
“You didn’t know if you had it,” Noyes said.
Because only people who show symptoms of Ebola can transmit the virus to others, Hickox knew she posed no danger, she said. Decades of research gleaned from 20 previous outbreaks of the virus demonstrate how to respond to Ebola — with compassion, not panic, she said.
“How are we balancing fear and reality and science in all of this?” Hickox said.
She also spoke of hope in the fight against the outbreak, such as the 39 people who survived Ebola at her clinic during the month she spent in West Africa. One audience member asked how many died. The clinic staff intentionally didn’t keep track, Hickox said.
She plans to return to West Africa soon.